Welcome to my second “Science Answers” post! About a month ago, I sent out a post requesting science questions from all of you; you can find it here. This post addresses the second of the questions I was asked. If you have a question, you can ask it in the comments here or on that post, or ask it in an email. Or find me on Facebook!
Wow…great question. This is a question the greatest scientific minds have asked and tried to answer for centuries. It’s a question not even Stephen Hawking, the scientific genius of the century, has fully answered.
There are a few parts to the gravity question, and they have each been addressed one by one over time:
How does gravity work?
What is gravity?
Why does gravity work?
Isaac Newton stood on the shoulders of the giants before him—Aristotle, Ptolemy, Copernicus, and Kepler—and figured out how gravity works. But he was at a loss to explain what exactly this mysterious force was.
Einstein built on Newton’s work and came up with a theory for what gravity is—that is, distortions in space-time.
We have yet to understand why gravity works. Why is space-time warped? Why do objects distort it as if it were the material of a trampoline? What exactly is the nature of space?
But, lucky for me, the question above specifically asks what gravity is. And that, I can explain.
The best way to do that is to turn one of gravity’s oldest tricks, one that has perplexed scientists and philosophers for thousands of years: What makes the planets move?
It is surprisingly difficult to find a flattering image of Tycho Brahe.
Honestly. Do me a favor and do a Google image search for the guy. It’ll come up with all sorts of disfigured images, mostly because his nose got messed up in a sword fight…
I know what you’re thinking. A classical astronomer in a sword fight? Suddenly these people seem less like heroes of modern-day science and more like human beings with lives of their own.
Tycho certainly fits the trend. He’s known for being quite the unpopular sort. Bad-tempered and vain, there were few who respected him for more than just his astronomical accomplishments—and even those were few.
Claudius Ptolemy lived about five centuries after the Greek philosopher Aristotle’s time. Aristotle’s model for the universe—the first geocentric model, with Earth at the center—was still widely accepted, and Ptolemy sought to improve it.
Ptolemy was one of the first of the ancient Greeks to be a true astronomer and mathematician, rather than a philosopher.
Where Aristotle, Plato, Thales, and Pythagoras before him had tried to use “pure thought” to understand the nature of the heavens, Ptolemy set about to perfect the geocentric model mathematically.
This was a huge step forward for science as a whole, as science today relies heavily on mathematics.
In Ptolemy’s time, science didn’t really exist yet. The Greeks preferred to just think through problems logically and reasonably, and if the logic they used was based on untrue assumptions…well, no one was the wiser.
But Ptolemy came up with the wonderful idea to line up observations of the sky with mathematics. And even though Aristotle’s view of the universe shackled him, he moved science forward with great strides.
You might have heard of Aristotle. He’s the guy who said that we are what we repeatedly do. His words are often interpreted to mean that, for instance, a person who farms is therefore a farmer—or a person who writes science posts is, therefore, a science writer.
He also contributed a lot to the arenas of politics, philosophy, and basically every other field of study the Greeks could think of. His teachings were almost as widely accepted as Plato’s. And, like Plato, he had a few ideas about astronomy.
Well, most of what he taught about astronomy was dead wrong. But he had his moments. And his failures illustrate an important concept of science. No level of understanding is beyond our reach, and sometimes it takes pure imagination and guesswork to get there.
Aristotle may have been wrong most of the time, but he dared to imagine. And that’s something all scientists must do.